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The man who started it all, flanked by two recent Rawhiti-Connell Valentine’s Day gifts (Photos: supplied; design: Tina Tiller)
The man who started it all, flanked by two recent Rawhiti-Connell Valentine’s Day gifts (Photos: supplied; design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyFebruary 14, 2022

Roses and chocolates can never capture the true weird messiness of love

The man who started it all, flanked by two recent Rawhiti-Connell Valentine’s Day gifts (Photos: supplied; design: Tina Tiller)
The man who started it all, flanked by two recent Rawhiti-Connell Valentine’s Day gifts (Photos: supplied; design: Tina Tiller)

My Valentine’s Days have veered between heartbreak, happy singledom and deep, abiding love. None were more valid than the others.

Valentine’s Day is technically the commemoration of a man being clubbed to death, and then beheaded, just to be sure he was dead.

Among the calendar of significant Judeo-Christian events that have made it into the mainstream, it is rivaled only by Good Friday (a man was crucified), and Passover (a people were saved while many first-born sons were slaughtered), in its violent origin story. While many mark Holy Week with the solemnity befitting the recollection of death by cross, all that remains of St Valentine’s story is the mythology of his, or their (there were three martyred saints named Valentine) patronage of big time, perfect, red hearted, cupid-struck, romantic love.

The amorphous collection of saintly men we know as the singular St Valentine gained this weighty love load by purportedly marrying young Christian couples in secret. Married men couldn’t be called to battle. This put him offside with Emperor Claudius and that is how he ended up clubbed and headless.

I initially assumed I would write some rose-tinted treatise on love for Valentine’s Day but I am quite struck by this poor man’s violent death. If I think about my history with Valentine’s Day since becoming aware of romantic feelings, many belong in the category of having my heart clubbed to death.

My first real recollection of Valentine’s Day heartbreak was being dumped at school camp. We went round together for three hours. Then he went round with my friend. I was 12 and I think my dad was also at this camp. Since then, a solid third of Valentine’s Days have been spent wishing and hoping that unrequited love would be requited because that is what happened in American movies and TV shows. The objects of my affection did not know I had love feelings, and occasions to partake in the traditional New Zealand mating ritual of getting pissed and having a pash with some of them were few and far between. I would stare at the door of the office, my heart leaping and falling every time it opened. I was obsessed with the idea of getting flowers at work. Instead, my lonely heart took a beating and I would go home empty-handed.

The rest fall evenly between being defensively and angrily single, hating the day and protesting its heteronormative, couple-obsessed commercialism, and being comfortably ensconced in a relationship. Valentine’s Day in a relationship is peak Valentine’s Day. For the first year anyway. I got my flowers at work from the man I eventually married. I preened and feigned surprise and love was grand. My husband and I would now get a solid B on Valentine’s Day efforts. He gave me a toilet roll with “You’re the shit!” written on it for Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago. In turn I made him poo emoji cupcakes. My friend, happily married for over 10 years, is celebrating the day this year by feeding her cats Valentine’s Day-branded cat food.

Don’t get used to it (Photo: Getty Images)

As you progress through a relationship Valentine’s Day can become a series of unmet expectations; the pressure to spice things up and relieve the fatigue of long-term partnership is intense. My Instagram is currently dominated by ads for couple’s therapy apps, date night ideas and lingerie that would make me look like a turkey in a string bag. I really like turkey but the lowest temperature in Auckland of late has been 23 degrees and I fear I’d swell and have to be cut out. There will be an ad along shortly telling me how to make this erotic.

I don’t mean to make long term relationships sound dreary but when discussing this piece with my husband, I likened our love to the hardy rye sourdough I made over the weekend. He did not balk at this analogy. Breadmaking, if you are a disciple, is a game of attempting consistency and getting inconsistent results. It requires time, maintenance and commitment. It can be very boring and you eat the results no matter how it turns out. There is nothing wrong with attempting to create a novel little confection on a specific day but the real breaks from the hard work of being together arrive unannounced and – sorry to everyone who follows the #tradwife, keeping-yourself-nice movement – they often involve farting.

I have always been deeply attached to Aristophanes’ story about love from Plato’s symposium. Primitive humans, he suggests, were originally spherical, double bodied creatures, who “wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels” until they tried to scale Olympus and Zeus chopped them in half. Love between two people, he said, occurs when you find your other chopped off half and become whole again.

It’s an absurd, nonsensical story that yet again involves a mythologised and violent bodily severance. Just as St Valentine was separated from his head, and we were separated from our other halves, you could argue that the idea of Valentine’s Day, as experienced through its most commercial, homogeneous lens, has been separated from the very thing it celebrates: love. Love is a specifically messy, unique but ultimately unifying force. It is euphoric and painful. It is pregnant with expectation and yet is often at its best when all expectations are abandoned. It is experienced differently by everyone and also exists as the inspiration for many of our collectively celebrated cultural works. There is no one way to do it but we are constantly instructed on how, particularly on Valentine’s Day.

St Valentine’s story is as murky and mythologised as any dredged from the annals of history and retooled to suit a variety of agendas. This leaves it open to all possibilities. You can nurse a broken heart, dress up in turkey string, be an angry – or indeed happy – single, enjoy the first blushes of new romance or find comfort in your rye sourdough relationship. It’s essentially the “you do you, boo” calendar event of the year, because in reconnecting with its purpose of celebrating love, you can fan it out to celebrate all aspects of this joyful, painful, grossly messy human experience.

And if reflecting on your experiences of love is truly unpalatable, St Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy, and the saint to summon to protect against fainting and plagues. Absolutely no one would begrudge you summoning St Valentine’s plague protection powers this year.


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